Mugello & Sieve Valleys
|A Taste of History and Tuscan
|Valdisieve and Mugello:
The reasons for the division of this part of Tuscany into two sub-zones, Mugello and
Valdisieve, can be traced back to the divergent paths taken by the River Sieve. Whereas
Mugello runs alongside the elevated branch of the river through hilly terrain, Valdisieve
lies along the lower conduit as it flows down into a narrow valley, with only occasional,
discontinuous areas of flatland at the bottom. It is almost as if the evolution of the
landscape of the valley had as a prerequisite the division of the area along the lines of
the different watercourses taken by the tributaries of the river. Although initially
purely geographical, this separation came over time to apply also to the civic
administration of the area.
Indeed, the very shape of the Sieve Valley itself (narrow all the way along its 56 km
extension) has contributed to the partitioning of the area into sections, causing the
population to gravitate towards the principal towns of the area, Pontassieve, Borgo San
Lorenzo, and Barberino, on the western edge of the valley.
Each of the sections into which the area is partitioned has a direct exit route to the
city of Florence (Pontassieve through the Arno valley; Borgo San Lorenzo though the
Bolognese and Faentina highways; Barberino through the Croci di Calenzano). This easy
access to Florence was another important factor in the effective separation the residents
of each branch of the river from each other, although modern modes of communication have,
of course, put an end to this relative isolation.
Let us look now at the morphology of the valley in greater detail (even if space
restrictions necessitate that what follows is only a schematic outline). The Sieve River
(or 'Sepis', to give it its Latin name) has its source half way along the coastline of
Poggio alla Golaia, in the area around Montecuccoli, on the slopes of the Calvana mountain
range that separates the Mugello Valley from that of Bisenzio. From its source, the Sieve
flows into a valley, in a North-Westerly South-Easterly direction, running parallel to the
Appennine chain which overlooks it. Further on, at around about the altitude of the town
of Vicchio, the river starts to curve in a southerly direction. An aerial view of the
entire course of the river would, then, show it as a sort of semi-circle. The edges of
this semi-circle are defined to the right of the river by the mountains which separate it
from Florence - that is to say, Monte Morello (934m), Monte Senario (815m), and Monte
Giovi (992m) - and to the left of the river by the buttress of the Apennine chain.
The profile of the mountains is rounded and gently undulating, owing to the effects of
erosion on these friable, powdery rocks. Rocky spurs are only a very occasional feature of
the landscape. Nor does this tract of the Apennine range contain summits of particularly
high altitude: for the most part, they are a fraction over the thousand-metre mark, here
and there reaching 1300m: starting from north-east, there is the Sasso di Castro at 1227m,
Monte Freddi at 1303m, Monte Carzolano at 1187m, Monte Peschiena at 1198m, and, on what is
referred to as Saint Benedict's Alp, Poggio al Piano at 1142m. The most frequented
mountain passes are (again starting from north-east) the Futa at 1227m, the Giogo at 882m,
the Colla di Casaglia at 913m, and the Muraglione at 907m. Some distance away from the
Apennine chain, at around the altitude of the town of Dicomano, the slopes of the
Falterona massif (1654m) re-appear in front of the Sieve, thus determining, as we have
seen, the curvature of the second half of the path of the river.
Forming the backdrop to the final part of the river's journey are the Consuma mountains,
which loom large over this area. Some of the rocky promontories fall away towards the
river and are considered part of the Sieve Valley proper, whereas others curve away
towards the Arno Valley, to which they belong, at least geographically, if not in terms of
government administration (these parts of the chain come under the remit of the locality
of Pelago). There are numerous streams that flow into the Sieve, mostly from the left side
(where there are more tributaries, which in themselves are also richer in water content,
since they are continually being refreshed by mountain springs high in the Apennines).
These streams are fast-flowing and relatively protracted because of the gradient of the
mountainside, and also because the distance between the water source and the river is yet
further reduced by some of the most highly-precipitous slopes. This is in direct contrast
with the nature of the other side of the Apennine chain, which leads down towards
Emilia-Romagna but at a far less pronounced angle.
The geological profile of the Sieve Valley is decidedly complex; the basin was formed as a
result of corrugation and subsidence of the ocean floor that up until around ten million
years ago constituted a large part of modern-day Tuscany (several areas in the Mugello
Valley are still littered with marine fossils from this former era). These movements of
the Earth's crust continued apace throughout the Miocenic era, right up until the start of
the next era (the Pliocenic), during which time a number of lacustrian basins were formed
(the Florentine valley, Valdarno, Val di Chiana, Val Tiberina, Mugello) by corrugations
which were simultaneously responsible for the sealing of many valleys.
The basins were eventually filled through water erosion from the rivers further eroding
the already weak geological structure of the mountains themselves, composed as they were
of calcareous clay, marl and sandstone. These materials, flowing down into the bottom of
the valleys as sediment, ended up completely covering the basins. It goes without saying
that these processes occurred very slowly, over a prolonged period of time. From the time
when the basins were filled until the present day, Mugello and Valdisieve have not
undergone further drastic geological change.
The climate is temperate with relatively high levels of humidity. Rain is a more common
feature in Mugello than in Valdisieve.
The autumn and spring months have relatively high rainfall; it is not unusual for there to
be sudden flooding along the banks of the river during these seasons. The November 1966
flood of the Arno, partly caused by exceptionally high rainfall in Valdisieve, stands as a
testament to the popular local saying, 'The Arno doesn't grow if the Sieve doesn't flow'.
The winters are in general fairly cold, with dreary fog almost ubiquitous (slightly more
so in Mugello than in Valdisieve). It is, however, rare for temperatures to drop below
-8°C. The summers are rather warm, but the beneficial influence of the fresh mountain air
allays the risk of temperatures rising to the sort of levels which afflict Florence
year-in year-out. The principal winds in the valley are the scirocco, which brings rain in
the spring and autumn, and the cold and dry north wind, which blows from north to
north-east, and can be fearsome on a bad day.
In parallel with the climate, the sheer extensiveness of hilly and mountainous areas has
been instrumental in determining the geological make-up of the vegetative mantle. These
factors have, in turn, defined the structure of the local economy, which has for centuries
been based around agriculture and the utilisation of the woodland. Long ago, all the high
ground was densely covered in woodland vegetation, but felling was initiated back in the
middle ages and has continued at an ever-increasing rate since then as more and more land
are cleared for farming use. The reduction in the number of trees has had a marked effect
on the quality of the soil, which is now more easily washed away, causing an increased
number of landslides and greater hydro-geological disorder in general. Happily, over the
last quarter of a century, a policy of replanting has returned fir, oak and beech trees to
this region, but in abandoned areas it is scrub that predominates. Vineyards and olive
groves are clearly in evidence on large tracts of the land, although many of the olive
groves have been replanted with vines for the purposes of intensive cultivation. Let us
remember that it is in this very area that the renowned wines Pomino and Chianti Rufina
Let us now look briefly at some of the most important historical events which have
occurred in Valdisieve, an area defined geographically as containing the localities of San
Godenzo, Dicomano, Londa, Rufina, Pelago, Pontassieve (including Regello, which lies on
the slopes of Valdarno, and along with Vallombrosa and the populated areas on the
Florentine side is considered geographically, politically and economically to belong to
the group of localities known as Montagna Fiorentina), and also in the Mugello Valley,
constituted by the localities of Barberino di Mugello, Bordo S. Lorenzo, Firenzuola,
Marradi, Palazzuolo sul Senio, San Piero a Sieve, Scarperia, Vaglia and Vicchio.
The earliest existing documents pertaining to these towns date from the 7th-Century. The
documents show that at that time, the towns were either under the feudal control of
various noble Florentine families (Guidi, Ubaldini, Alberti) or were controlled by the
bishops of Florence and Fiesole. And yet, the history of this area is far more ancient
than the documents attest, and this unwritten history is full of question marks. Tradition
has it that the first colonisers of the area were the Ligurians, but the earliest
remaining signs of civilisation were those left by the Etruscans, whom extant evidence
confirms were responsible for land reclamation and the canalisation of the River Sieve.
Subsequently, in the third century BC, the Etruscans made way for the Romans, who built
roads and fortifications on the mountainsides, and a bridge over the Sieve. There is
little information about the period following the fall of the Roman Empire up until the
10th-Century AD. The documents dating from around that time confirm that the Guidi family
wielded great power on the left side of the Sieve, from the Apennines through Falterona to
Casentino, whereas the Ubaldini family was the most powerful feudal dynasty on the western
side of the Mugello Valley.
A number of other noble families (Baldovinetti, Cerretani, Dini, Cerchi, Martelli, Medici,
Da Filicaia), who were slightly less important in terms of land ownership and political
power, did, in fact, originally come from Mugello or Valdisieve but had moved to Florence.
At the same time, certain Florentine families made the same trip but in reverse, moving
out of the city to live in this area, acquiring land in Bardi and Gondi.
Later on, the Republic of Florence was to make its mark on the area, both through commerce
and through combat, eventually seizing control of the entire area round the city, an area
which was, of course, crucial for the city's capacity to defend itself and supply its
citizens. At the end of the 14th-Century, the Sieve Valley was annexed completely by
Florence and the area underwent the administrative subdivision which still stands today.
With the passage over time from feudalism, first to the era of the city-states and then to
that of the dominions, the population was little by little granted greater freedoms, and
in the same period agriculture started to flourish and manufacturing to develop. These
advances were, however, to be arrested by the invasions of foreign troops who repeatedly
plundered the area during the 16th-Century. Of course, we should not gloss over the chaos
caused during the middle ages and on through the Renaissance by natural disasters such as
famine, plagues, and earthquakes, which flared up from time to time, devastating the area,
and effectively freezing its civic and economic development.
The period of the Grand Duchies came next, first with the Medici and, later, with the
House of Lorraine. This period did not signal any important changes in the social
structures of the area or in the lives of those who lived there. The House of Lorraine
concentrated its efforts on economic development, since by this time Tuscany was playing
only a minor role in European cultural affairs. There was a general reluctance to carry
out any substantial reform, and even if there had been the impetus, the funds were not
freely available. Having said that, Mugello and Valdisieve did benefit from the
construction of the Muraglione Pass, which facilitated communication between the various
towns that ran alongside it.
The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars drastically altered the established order of
European society, and the repercussions were felt even in the remotest areas of Tuscany.
The reinstatement of the Grand Duchy in 1814 was an attempt on the part of the old order
to reassert its control, but it was to be short-lived, as the clamouring for Italian
unification was audible throughout this area for decades before it at last came to pass in
1860. The global changes of the following years did have an impact, albeit a slow one, on
this part of Tuscany, as new roads were constructed and the number of factories
multiplied. Yet the economy did not reach a sufficient level of prosperity to discourage
emigration, both to other regions of Italy and overseas. Many, however, elected to remain
there as farm workers, even though living conditions in the 19th- and early 20th-Centuries
actually worsened following the introduction of share cropping.
It became necessary for Italian landowners to try to compete with industrialised farming,
which was dramatically undercutting the prices of individual farmers who were still using
traditional agricultural methods. In the Tuscan countryside, where there was neither the
necessary equipment nor the commitment required to modernise agriculture, the farms were
made more competitive by increasing the productivity of the land through a greater
exploitation of the workforce, in this case the peasants: the landowners imposed stricter
conditions, threatening to make workers redundant or banish them from the farms. The most
unfortunate of the peasants were forced to work on the mountainsides, in return for little
more than a subsistence diet. And so began the exodus to the cities.
The two world wars were disastrous for Valdisieve and Mugello, both in terms of human
casualties and of the destruction wrought. Monte Giovi played a particularly important
role in the final phases of the war as it became a base for those who, after the 8th of
September, 1943, decided to take up arms against the Germans. The local population did
everything they could to help these resistors, who were the protagonists of a crucial
moment in recent history.
And so, with our little trip down memory lane almost complete, we come to the present day.
By now entirely in synch with the outside world, the prosperity of Valdisieve and Mugello
in the Sixties was followed by two decades of declining fortunes. It was to reveal itself
to be a period of profound crisis, both economic and spiritual. One now detects the need,
if not the active desire on the part of those directly concerned, to rediscover the past,
to return to those values that had appeared dead and buried not too long ago, but which
now - in a moment of relative calm, in which we are not yearning as desperately as we once
were for the arrival of 'the new' - are starting once more to make some sort of sense.
These values make us aware of our collective history. Museums of local culture are opening
up all over the place, and amateur groups are re-enacting ancient rites with songs and
dances of yesteryear. With the help and participation of local institutions and local
people, fairs and village feasts are being staged, and religious holidays observed. Every
town is trying to promote historical studies of its particular local traditions and
publishers are continually commissioning research into little-known and long-neglected
aspects of local history.
This website is part of that cultural reawakening. It is intended to give a brief
illustration of the historical importance of Valdisieve and Mugello, both areas rich in
traditions and heritage. It is also an attempt to give an idea of the beauty of the area
as a whole in the hope that this unique environment shall be preserved and protected
against the threat of indiscriminate, destructive action of any sort. The heritage of this
area is not only historically important and emotionally engaging, but is also worth its
weight in gold. Such a cultural treasure trove should not be allowed to disappear. We hope
that this website will contribute something towards the defence of this wonderful part of